Secondment at Nacia in March-April 2023

Sustainable entrepreneurship in rural and peripheral Italy

Report from the stay with Naica, Lecce

Anne-Mette Hjalager

April 2023

The secondment at Naica, società cooperative, in March-April 2023 was performed as part of the work package 2. This work package “aims to unveil what kind of factors or mechanisms that motivate and prevent sustainable entrepreneurship. It does so by undertaking comparative research from a multi-level perspective including individual and institutional variables…. The objective of this work package is therefore to explore context-specific cross-level drivers and hinders of sustainable entrepreneurship.” (project outline).

University of Salento is a tech-intensive university, and Naica is located and embedded into the structure of the university. It supports startups and stimulates the establishment of industry-university collaboration. I had the pleasure to get a desk in a group which is examining and developing agricultural technologies, essential in a region of Italy which is strong on food production, and where there is a need to modernize and develop the entrepreneurial capacities, both in agriculture, in the rural experience sector, and in related tech companies.

During the stay a visit was undertaken to Circular Research Foundation (CRF) in the small town of Parabita, and interviews were made with the initiators, Monica Bianco and Sebastiano Martignano. Like many other small towns in Italy, Parabita is characterized by population decline. The aim of Circular Research Foundation is first and foremost to serve as a start-up hub for deep tech companies in the field of circular economies. Presently, a startup is successfully working on the development of monitoring of landfills, and the utilization of the gasses from the landfill for energy supplies. Other projects nurtured in the house relate to digital support systems that can optimize manufacturing, for example in the food sector and in public infrastructure facilities.

What is particularly interesting with CRF is its wider perspective on sustainability and circularity. It includes also the social fabric and the population movements. It is difficult to retain qualified staff to Salento, as most activity in Puglia is agglomerating towards Bari. Salento is a periphery. CRF has started an initiative called “Restanza”, “Staying”. The aim is to motivate young people to stay in the region or move to the region. This will not take happen unless, simultaneously, new job opportunities are created in modern types of industries and sectors. The linking with high-tech startups is therefore essential. Other assets such as training opportunities, attractive housing in restored historical settlements, and human engagement and fabric is also needed. Barriers to the development are found in counterproductive governmental regulation and in conservatism of the banking and venturing system.

The Covid period demonstrated that very favorable living conditions can be obtained in the south – slower pace, lower costs. However, the negative mainstream narrative needs to be changed, and success stories created with the help of both the industry, the municipalities, and the active citizens. Inspiration for the CRF initiative comes from the influential Calabrian professor Vito Teti’s book and other writings about “Restanza”. Teti approaches the issues of potential repopulation from an anthropological point of view, and his research demonstrates a new responsibility emerging in the young population. The climate crises and the digitalization are new conditions that can reframe the population movements in the future.

I found the combined technical and human/cultural aspects of circularity very inspiring for practice as well as scholarly research about the development of rural and peripheral places.